Exploring the Manambolo River in Madagascar

Day three: Entering the canyon [continued from page 1]

In the morning we have sand in everything. It's almost like if has snowed. The plethora of insect life from the previous night has taken refuge in all our equipment and we're frequently surprised by strategically hidden scorpions as we pack.

At breakfast we're joined by a local Sakalava boy who's finely dressed. He tells us that the Dahalo had crossed the river and appeared to be preparing an ambush in the late afternoon. Thus the concerns of Max and Betsara were warranted and they plan to take special precautions on their return trip upriver.

As we move downstream the landscape becomes more canyon-like. Increasingly there are little pockets of forest and we encounter more local people on the river.

We pass some fasana or tombs constructed with neatly piled rock. These are tombs of the Sakalava, the ethnic group that lives in this region and most of western Madagascar. In the distance there is a mountain where local people have typically buried their dead. Once you pass the mountain it becomes a serious fady or taboo to point with your finger -- you need to point with your knuckle, paddle, or elbow when trying to call attention to something. Pointing with your finger angers the razana or spirits of the dead and offenders must make an offering.

We reach the Manambolo canyon and it is spectacular with colorful cliff walls and deciduous forests. We camp at a picturesque spot where a clearwater stream enters the muddly flow of the Manambolo. As we unload the pirogues bright yellow and teal butterflies flutter about and black kites circle above.

I go for a walk up the clearwater creek ("Oly" creek) and find a gorgeous pool full of at least 5 kinds of fish including a silverside-like fish with black markings on its tail, a goby-like creature, and three types of cichlids (a sand-colored species with vertical bands, a dark cichlid, and an opaline type with red fins and occasionally yellow or orange flanks). Seeing these fish is a special experience; Malagasy cichlids are increasingly endangered due to habitat loss and degradation from deforestation and soil erosion. Additionally, the introduction of exotic species -- specifically Tilapia -- have absolutely decimated native fish stocks. In some rivers as much as 99% of the fish collected in surveys are now Tilapia species and several of Madagascar's unique cichlids are no longer recorded in the wild.

While walking back to the camp site I see a group of Decken's sifaka leaping about in trees high up on the ridge above our tents. We watch these lemurs as the sun sets.

Lemurs, a group of primates found only on Madagascar, are today highly threatened by habitat loss and hunting. Many of the island's lemur species have gone extinct since the arrival of humans less than 2000 years ago.

Day 4: Exploring Oly Canyon

In the morning Betsara, Benja and I hike up Oly Canyon creek. The creek runs over white limestone rock, through channels and shoots, and over small waterfalls into turqoise pools. We are surrounded by pristine deciduous forests, orange and yellow blossomed trees, and calls of birds. We encounter a group of red-fronted brown lemurs that have come down to the river to drink. They grunt at us as we continue upstream through palm-lined pools full of exquisite Madagascar lace plant (Aponogeton madagascariensis) in bloom and other aquatic plants.

We find many skinks, a couple frogs, and a mass of glowing red beetles. In the creek there are small shrimp, purple crabs, and 6-8" (15-20 cm) long cichlids. There are hundreds of snail shells in various shapes and sizes along with living black snails clinging to rocks in the rapid sections of the river.

After a couple hours of walking we come to an obscenely beautiful place, a 20 foot waterfall pouring into a blue pool. We spend some time swimming in the pool and jumping off the falls. On the way back I stop to swim in some of the natural pools.

We press further down the river through the canyon and past several waterfalls and another group of red-fronted brown lemurs. The canyon continues to be gorgeous.

We see more locals in the lower part of the canyon. Some are visiting the remains of their ancestors while others are tending to their river-side rice patches. We stop to spend a few minutes talking with a family growing rice on a sandbar. The family will stay long enough to grow one crop of rice before the river levels rise and inundate the sandbar.

Rice is the staple of the Malagasy diet and most people in Madagascar eat rice three times a day. Madagascar once grew enough rice to feed itself but environmental degradation and resulting soil erosion has diminished the country's agricultural capacity. Today Madagascar relies on imports from other countries to feed its population.

Towards the village of Bekopaka the wind picks up significantly right as we hit a long stretch of slackwater. We make slow progress through an area that is interesting geologically with limestone slabs pancaked atop oneanother and then eroded by the river. These create bizarre rock formation and caves.

The village of Bekopaka is our destination. Here we'll camp and then visit the limstone tsingy up close. As we drag our gear across the sand bar and up to our campsite I can't help but think about the beauty of the canyon. I'm already salivating at the idea of returning to explore more of the Manambolo's side canyons and creeks. Visiting a place like the Manambolo reminds you that there are wildlands worth protecting.

The Manambolo Team

Betsara canoe guide (Manambolo) Betsara, 28 years old, canoe man & cook
max (Manambolo) Max, 26 years old, canoe man
Benja in canoe (Manambolo) Benja, 28 years old, the rainmaker
Rhett looking at Aponogeton (Manambolo) Rhett, 26 years old


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